When social media was but a baby, it was promoted as an unprecedented advancement in communication – a way to pick up a phone, pop in the car, or cross an ocean via a screen. Families split by miles could reunite. Business hindered by time difference could succeed. Love tortured by distance could prevail. Society was spellbound.
As Bebo and Myspace grew up to be Twitter and Facebook, however, the dynamic of our relationship changed. For we are no longer merely under social media’s spell. We are victim to its curse. Over the next few blog posts, I will be addressing the question, “Is social media a conduit for violence or positivity?” Each post will focus on a specific subject of which social media is both our greatest ally and our worst enemy.
How my heart aches for humanity on those rare occasions I scroll through twitter.
Why, oh why, do we insist on sharing every aspect of our lives online? I am admittedly a very private person, but I try to understand. I try to disguise my disgust at the disclosure of intimate details, all the while wishing such information would be told solely to a health care professional. I try to feign interest in the different angles of a person’s face, all the while praising the power of Photoshop. I try to humour myself as to the benefits of sharing one’s innermost details, all the while wishing I could warn the person that they are sharing their lives with a criminal.
To family and friends, a status update or tweet of a user’s location is rather unexciting. It may provoke a few comments or earn a ‘like’, but it soon passes out of thought. For a burglar, however, regular location updates are an impetus for law-breaking activity. By posting that your house is currently unoccupied or will be for an extended period of time in the future, you are inadvertently welcoming a criminal into your home.
Studies in 2013 found that 78% of burglars admitted to using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Google street to digitally stake out their victim’s properties, and 54% of burglars said that sharing their location on social media is the most common mistake made by homeowners. In fact, it is the one of the most common mistakes made by us all, and theft is not the only crime to come of it.
Say hello to the cyber-stalker. And no, I am not referring to love-struck males and females who use social media to find out all they can about a romantic interest. Although, that is troubling – not least because it is so commonplace that ‘facebook stalking’ is now a word in our vernacular. The person I speak of is one who harasses their victim with messages, written threats, and persistent online behaviour. One who uses their victim’s readily shared city of residence, place of work/education, home address, and real-time pinpointed location to extend their obsession from a screen to real life.
Then there is the cyber-harasser; the person who posts inappropriate comments, displays aggressive online behaviour, and threatens and intimidates their victims. The one who, like any criminal born of the social media revolution, ruins lives.
Information obtained by the Press Association under the Freedom of Information Act found that more than 16,000 alleged crimes involved Facebook and Twitter were reported to the police during the year 2014.
The Metropolitan Police, Britain’s largest police force, received 1,207 crime reports mentioning Facebook and 138 mentioning Twitter.
959 reports were made to The Greater Manchester Police involving Facebook, of which 371 were allegations of harassment, 38 were threats of murder, and 8 were rape allegations involving girls under the age of 16.
There was a 40 per cent rise in crime reports pertaining to Facebook for the Staffordshire Police, who received 1,269 claims. 326 of these were complaints of harassment, 38 were threats of murder, and 13 were rape allegations involving girls under the age of 16. And these are only the cases reported.
It is not only in the instigation of a crime, however, that social media aids and abet.
A few years ago, a police officer from Philadelphia chanced upon two troubling photos on Twitter. One was of a witness in a then active attempted shooting trial, and the other was of court records pertaining to the case. This tweet led the officer to the Instagram account ‘Rats215’, where he found the witness statement of the pictured 19 year old victim, in which he wrote that he was shot at because he had testified in a homicide case.
Alarming, no? It gets worse.
The case was a ‘secret indictment’. This should mean that documentation relating to a charge is kept under seal and those involved in the proceedings are prohibited from talking about the case, even once it is over. Yet somehow, important pieces of information were shared online. Furthermore, secret indictments are often requested to protect witnesses. Yet, this witness was photographed in the courtroom whilst the trial was underway.
Every photo on the anonymous Instagram account, dedicated to identifying witnesses in crimes across Philadelphia, was cause for great concern. Over thirty people, referred to as ‘rats’, were revealed by the creator, who posted images, classified police statements, testimony, evidence, and details to grand jury proceedings.
Creator and followers alike advocated violence against the witnesses, with the later warning, “we’ll get you in time” and his supporters commenting, “Post some new rats. I needa put a hit out on them.”
The justice system has long had to contend with witness tampering, but social media has undoubtedly exacerbated the issue. How do you persuade a witness to testify when they no longer have a place of refuge? For although the accused is physically behind bars, social media makes it feel as if they are right before your eyes. And so a written threat posted on a Facebook page becomes just as harrowing as leaving the safety of your home.
But while social media is helping criminals to slip into our lives, it is simultaneously preventing them from slipping through law enforcement’s fingers – sometimes by their own making.
I don’t advocate name-calling, but some criminals are idiots. Social media platforms are awash with incriminating evidence that is often uploaded by the guilty party themselves. Surely that doth maketh an imbecile?
Such stupidity has led to the arrests and convictions of perpetrators worldwide. From the thief who posts pictures with the stolen property, to the one who uses their victim’s laptop to log into their account. From the ‘street pharmacist’ who uploads pictures of drugs, to the drunk-driver who live streams their antics. And a particular special mention for those on the run who use Facebook check-in or post pictures in front of famous landmarks. Social media, you devilish snitch, you!
Even a criminal whose online presence is a tad more understated risks becoming an unwitting Hansel or Gretel. Their trail of breadcrumbs is proving invaluable to law enforcement. Police are using networking sites to obtain information about presumed suspects, either by way of their profile or their friends and families’ profiles. Some forces create fake accounts, ‘friend’ or follow the suspect, and then track their movements, hoping to catch them in the act.
Circulating images or details online, be it of a missing person or a wanted individual, plays to the part of us that enjoys being a sofa detective – particularly with respect to the former. Missing person cases awaken our humanity and a collective effort is more likely to find an individual than the police working unilaterally. The first 24 hours when a person goes missing are the most crucial, and social media allows for the instantaneous sharing of information. There are risks, of course – misinformation, the fact the person’s identity will now be widely known – but that is true of social media in any situation.
Our safety has never been more threatened than it is in the age of a digital revolution. Nor has it been ever been more protected. For how should society regard something that both undermines the criminal justice system and rationalises it? How should we feel about a platform that both frightens and comforts us? How are we meant to live when the very thing we can no longer survive without is the very thing that is destroying us? In the name of justice, social media is a conduit for both violence and positivity, and our only hope is to find a balance.